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Tamaqua Partnership to mark 25th anniversary

he naysayers back in 1994 were sure it would never work. The community coming together to make plans for the future was a pipe dream.

Sure, they had big ideas, but actually making big improvements was just something that wasn’t going to happen.

Flash forward to 2019 and it’s pretty obvious the naysayers were wrong about those plans to revitalize Tamaqua.

The beginning

Tamaqua, and the entire area, was in a slump. King Coal was dethroned. Local industry was almost at a standstill, with even the garment factories closing their doors.

Business wasn’t exactly booming, despite efforts by the Tamaqua Chamber of Commerce and the Tamaqua Industrial Development Enterprise.

The outlook was gloomy and it didn’t help that an Associated Press writer had declared Tamaqua to be the second dirtiest town in America in 1987.

After that 1987 insult, Tamaqua Borough Council created the Tamaqua Beautification Association, which conducted cleanup campaigns, planted flowers and tried to make an overall difference in the way the town looked.

In 1991, the Save Our Station group was created in an effort to salvage and restore the 1874 Victorian train station, which saw up to 40 passenger trains stopping there until it was shuttered in 1961.

The station had been left to deteriorate, despite being placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 (borough council discussed razing the aging building in 1978), thanks to the Tamaqua Historical Society.

Community service organizations were trying their best, but efforts to improve the community faced a number of hurdles, including apathy from many along with a shortage of volunteers.

That is, until Tamaqua businessman Theodore “Ted” Block decided there must be something that could be done. So, during a snowstorm, with no customers in sight, he trudged a few doors east of his shop, Charles X. Block’s, and took his concerns to then state Rep. David Argall.

The two men talked about the issues at hand and possible ways to change things. Both knew it was a daunting task, but were determined to work together for change.

Argall suggested contacting the Center For Rural Pennsylvania for help. The center suggested holding a stakeholders meeting to bring together every aspect of the community in an effort to prioritize concerns and come up with solutions.

And so it began.

More than 100 residents, community leaders, business people, educators and students from throughout Tamaqua Borough and its surrounding townships attended the meeting in June and prioritized concerns into four areas/committees — economic development, downtown revitalization, tourism/recreation and historic preservation. Over many additional meetings, the volunteers crafted a 10-year-plan and dubbed their group Tamaqua Area 2004 Partnership, with a goal of having as many projects completed as possible within those 10 years. That’s when the planning really began.

First 10 years

They had lofty plans, but putting them into effect took time, effort and money.

To get things started, Argall presented SOS with a check for $26,000 to continue working on the station restoration project.

Additional state funding through the years was crucial to attracting private funding. As the partnership began trying to put those plans into action, the effort was spearheaded by Argall’s legislative aide, current state Rep. Jerry Knowles. At the time, Knowles also served as Tamaqua’s mayor.

“We bit off a lot. I’m the first to say I’m a pessimist, but those volunteers just kept going,” Knowles said.

Argall said, “The planning stage was relatively easy. Moving forward with those plans was a lot more difficult.”

After the four committees worked individually for three months, a second overall planning session was held in September, attracting 75 participants. Each committee outlined its goals and plans. The 10-year-plan had goals of improving the overall appearance of Tamaqua, traffic conditions, the downtown area and recreational opportunities; attracting jobs; strengthening ties between municipalities and regions; and providing better access to higher education.

In April 1995, the committee had fine-tuned its goals with anticipated completion dates. Each goal stressed the need for working together with existing entities.

In August of that year, thanks to a $12,500 grant from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, the partnership hired a project director, Micah Gursky, and became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

They needed to have something tangible, something visible to quiet the naysayers. So, a collection was taken among the volunteers, taking in enough cash to purchase four historic markers. A donation from PPL was used for an additional 10 historic markers, one in each township and the remainder in the borough.

The majority of volunteers held fast to their beliefs and goals. During the first 10 years, they applied for and received funding for a Main Street program from the Department of Community and Economic Development.

Additional funding came from PPL, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the John E. Morgan Foundation, along with several private, local businesses. TIDEwood Industrial Park went from having one part-time maintenance man to several hundred employees.

The train station was restored. The former Moose building was purchased and renovated. The Eastern Schuylkill Recreation Commission was established.

Two rails to trails projects were completed. Historic banners were placed throughout downtown Tamaqua.

Downtown Tamaqua Inc. managed the first streetscape project and guided several businesses through successful facade improvement projects.

A blighted building in the heart of downtown was turned into a successful Italian restaurant.

Lehigh Carbon Community College was actively creating a satellite campus in the borough’s South Ward.

By the time 2004 rolled along, a majority of the partnership’s goals had been successfully completed, thanks to the guidance of Argall, Knowles and Gursky. But, they couldn’t have done it alone.

“It’s all about the partnerships that were developed,” Argall said.

“There would be no success story if it weren’t for the involvement of so many volunteers, people who care about the community. It’s the people like Ted Block, Chet Hoffman, Joe Plasko and Doc Geiger, along with so many other local residents, who made this all happen,” says Gursky.

RIGHT: Photo of Tamaqua’s 1874 Victorian Train Station as it looked in 1998. DONALD R. SERFASS/ARCHIVE PHOTO
ABOVE: Tamaqua’s 1874 Victorian Train Station was restored thanks to the efforts of Tamaqua Save Our Station, the Tamaqua Historical Society and the Tamaqua Area Community Partnership. DONALD R. SERFASS/ARCHIVE PHOTO
One of the most visible facade improvement projects coordinated by the Tamaqua Area 2004 Partnership is this building at 16 W. Broad St., Tamaqua. In 1998 it was considered to be “blighted.” The Picone family purchased it in 2000 and worked with the partnership to turn in into today's La Dolce Casa, an experience in fine dining. DONALD R. SERFASS/ARCHIVE PHOTO
Prior to being turned into a fine dining establishment, this building at 16-18 W. Broad St., Tamaqua, was considered blighted. PHOTO COURTESY OF TAMAQUA HISTORICAL SOCIETY
These historic markers were the Tamaqua Area 2004 Partnership’s first visible sign of success. DONALD R. SERFASS/ARCHIVE PHOTO